Why Lent? We’ve talked about what it is (season of preparation for Easter), when it is (the 40 days before Easter), and why it’s named Lent (the Old English word for spring). But why Lent? Beyond the intrinsic goodness of being prepared (sorry, Boy Scouts). What’s the purpose of Lent?
Now let’s think about the church year for a moment. A significant portion of it follows the life of Jesus. The church year begins with Advent, as we await and prepare for Jesus’ coming. Then Christmas is when he is born, Epiphany (January 6) is when the wise men come to worship Jesus. Then Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany, and then Lent. The season of Lent corresponds with the life and ministry of Jesus: from his time in the wilderness to the cross. That’s a lot of ground to cover!
So Lent is the time when we ask the question, “who is Jesus?” We look to the gospels to see what he did, what he thought, and how he felt. It’s the natural time to focus on walking with Jesus throughout his life and ministry. Which leads us to the next question: what is the purpose or focus of Jesus’ ministry?
The gospels shed light on this question. Jesus has a clear purpose and focus to his life and ministry. In fact, he states his purpose in the first words of his ministry—just after he emerges from his time in the wilderness:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.14-15)
Did you hear it? The focus of Jesus’ ministry, his purpose in coming to earth, is to bring the kingdom of God. Repenting and believing are part of our response to the coming kingdom.
Maybe the word kingdom is hard to connect with—we don’t live under a king or in a kingdom. But maybe think about authority, rule, jurisdiction, control, territory—the place where God is in charge, the realm where God’s authority is recognized. God has a territory that is being expanded in the coming of Jesus into the world. This territory extends beyond space and time.
Lent invites us to realign ourselves with God’s kingdom, as seen in the life of Jesus: to notice how we miss the mark, and how we can follow Jesus with our lives.
So the focus of Lent is Jesus’ ministry. And the focus of Jesus’ ministry, in his own words, is the kingdom of God.
So how has the church focused during Lent on the kingdom of God? In two main ways—from the early church until the present.
As we mentioned last week: In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea prescribed Lent as a season of preparation for Easter. It also described the two purposes that the season should have:
1. As a time of penance (repentance) to confess your sin and turn around; the word repentance literally means to turn around
2. As a time of preparation of new followers of Jesus for baptism on Easter
In other words, Lent focuses on a commitment to Jesus and his kingdom (through baptism) and recommitment (through confession of sin).
Has the purpose of Lent changed much? Let’s jump to the 20th century, to the 2nd Vatican Council’s decree on liturgy to see: “The season of Lent has
a two-fold character; primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance.” Almost 2,000 years later, same focus.
We’ve looked at the Scriptures for the focus of Jesus’ ministry (the kingdom of God), and to church history for how this purpose has been lived out, which brings us to the present.
How can you and I focus on Jesus this Lent? Maybe through weekly worship, daily prayer (mealtime, bedtime), even reading a gospel (Mark is the shortest, in case you’re wondering). Or the time-tested responses of baptism, remembering your baptism, and confessing your sins on a regular basis.
Jesus invites you and me to join him in his mission to bring God’s kingdom.
Again, back to our question, how can you focus on Jesus this Lent, by aligning yourself with his mission?
Let us pray.
King of the Universe,
Help us to follow you this Lent, from the wilderness to the cross to the grave.
Help us to expand your kingdom,
By sharing your grace and your love with the world.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end, Amen.